Research shows that mental, physical, and sexual violence are surprisingly common in teenage relationships.
Research presented today at the American Psychological Association convention in Honolulu shows that about one in three U.S. teens ages 14 to 20 have been victims of dating violence, and about the same amount say they’ve committed relationship violence themselves.
A separate study also unveiled at the convention shows that middle school bullies who engage in non-physical taunts, such as name-calling and spreading rumors, are seven times more likely than other children to commit dating violence when they get to high school.
Michele Ybarra, president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, led the study that showed the extent of the dating violence problem. Dorothy Espelage, child development chair at the College of Education at the University of Illinois, detailed the findings showing a link between early childhood bullying and teen dating violence.
Ybarra looked at data collected in 2011 and 2012 from 1,058 teens who completed a national, online survey funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She broadly defined dating violence as either physical, sexual, or psychological.
Among girls, 41 percent reported being victims and 35 percent reported committing dating violence themselves. Among boys, 37 percent said they had been victims, and 29 percent admitted to being perpetrators.
Girls were more likely to have committed physical violence, but more likely to have been victims of sexual violence. Meanwhile, boys were more likely to report committing sexual violence. Rates of dating violence were similar across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic levels.
“The significant overlap of victimization, perpetration, and the different kinds of teen dating violence makes it important when designing prevention programs not to assume there are distinct victims and perpetrators,” Ybarra said in a news release. “We need to think about the dynamics within relationships that may result in someone both perpetrating and being victimized by their partner; as well as the extent to which dating abuse may follow a teen from one relationship to another.”
Ybarra declined further comment, saying her research is being considered for publication in a journal.
Espelage, whose research focused on more than 600 students in central Illinois, said bullies tend to mirror the adult culture that surrounds them. She called for earlier bullying prevention programs.
Both the U.S. Department of Education and the CDC have worked tirelessly to combat bullying by increasing awareness of the problem.
In a statement to Healthline, Dr. Howard Spivak, director of the Division of Violence Prevention at the CDC, called bullying and dating violence a “public health crisis” that he believes is preventable. “Science and experience have taught us why it happens and what to do about it. When addressing issues like bullying or dating violence, starting early is essential.”
Espelage said schools’ resources are limited and more needs to be done to address these concerns. “Family violence and conflict are part of the problem, but schools can take part in teaching emotional regulation and conflict resolution skills.”
Commenters in Healthline’s Facebook community showed overwhelming agreement that bullying is a problem and that more needs to be done in elementary schools. Some people said the bullying they experienced as children led to mental health problems later in life.
Carlos Cuevas, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, also presented research on teen dating violence at today’s convention. His work focused on a national sample of more than 1,500 Latino youths.
The results mirrored Ybarra’s work, with girls less likely to commit sexual dating violence but more likely to perpetrate physical and psychological violence. Family support was associated with decreased odds of engaging in delinquency, physical assaults, property crimes, and substance use.
Cuevas told Healthline that gender-specific, early intervention is needed to address teen dating violence. “We know that family cohesiveness and familialism is very strong in the Latino community. There is a mechanism we can use with this community to deal with relationships and dating violence.”